The 6 People You Have to Be When Line Editing Your Novel
by J.C. Lillis
YOU ARE SO CLOSE.
You’ve fixed plot holes. You’ve cut 7k from your flabby second draft. You’ve gotten rid of that pesky flat character who did nothing but whine and eat all the nectarines. Now your story’s a working machine, and it’s time to rub on that coat of polish that makes it all sleek and glossy.
Whether you do your own line edits or edit for others, here are six people you have to be while you shine up your sentences.
1. The Nightclub Doorman
Okay, so in your first draft you let in ALL THE WORDS, and in your next few drafts you streamlined and tightened the heck outta that plot, right? Line editing is when you get REALLY snobby and exclusive. Stand at the velvet rope and scrutinize the words; they all want in, but you know better. Tell those extra “that”s and “just”s and “very”s to take a hike. Allow some adverbs, but only ones that have their own thing going on and don’t repeat everything the nouns just said. Some words might be pretty but empty—a couple peacocks are fine here and there, but too many and there’s bird crap everywhere. Make every word tell you why it needs to be there. If it can’t, boot it out.
2. The Poet
At this point in your editing adventure, you’re probably communicating the right things with your sentences. Now it’s all about rhythm and flow. Sometimes just changing one or two words around can make an okay sentence awesome, so put in the extra time and shoot for the awesome. Try reading some poetry you love during the break you take before your line edits—whether it’s Shakespeare, Stevie Smith, or Shel Silverstein. Hearing the music in their language will help you make sentences sing.
3. The Lie Detector
Remember that show Lie to Me? I don’t, really, so I have to go IMDb it to see if this example makes sense. *zips off* *zips back* Right, so the guy on Lie to Me could zero in on tiny, subtle clues to figure out if someone was being less than genuine, and that’s what you’ve got to do to ensure authenticity. Put on your Lie Detector cap with the beeping antennae. Interrogate your paragraphs and round up Evidence of Fishiness. If a word or image sets off your radar—even for a second—reexamine it and consider replacing.
4. The Acting Coach
I’m right in the middle of an ill-advised Dawson’s Creek rewatch, and damn, I forgot how many times Katie Holmes would do the 1) hair tuck 2) lopsided grin 3) single-shoulder shrug in a single episode. Don’t let this happen to your characters: be a good acting coach, and do a careful reread with a critical eye on their tics. Little physical quirks help build character, but too much of the same action and you’ve got a drinking game waiting to happen. Do searches for common body parts—eyebrow, nose, lips, hair, shoulders—and make sure your characters aren’t abusing theirs.
5. The Trading-Card Collector
You collect wonderful words because you’re a writer, and you probably have your favorites. But as seasoned card collectors know, you don’t need three “ashen”s. Or four “diaphanous”es, especially not in the space of two chapters. So keep a running list of standout words in your manuscript—ones you especially like, and ones you already sense you might overuse. I call my list “Word Bewares,” but you don’t have to be that dorky. During line edits, do a search for each one and swap duplicates for fresher options. (I’m always surprised to see how much I lean on certain words I like, even when I thought I just used them once or twice.)
6. The Director
Sometimes you’re so focused on lean and mean that you hit a scene with the opposite problem: characters who forgot to interact with their setting. It’s in your head, but it’s not on the page. I like this trick: if I could move the scene to an empty room without editing much out, I could probably stand to add a few more details.
It’s not a hard thing to fix in line edits—just put on your director beret. A single bit of great blocking can not only illuminate character, but also make her real and relatable. Pick a line of dialogue you want to emphasize, and then look for setting-specific actions that reflect or reinforce it. If your character’s scared of losing control, maybe she corrects a typo on the menu. If he’s slyly causing trouble, maybe he picks at a hole in the red vinyl tablecloth. Don’t break your scene’s momentum with a paragraph about the yellow bowls that make him think of his sixth birthday party—just a couple small, specific details can elevate your scene and make the most of your setting.
How about you? What hats do you put on when you line edit? Any questions about the stuff I suggested? Ask away!